I flew to Manchester, England on May 26th and going through Passport Control proved to be quite interesting. I thought it would take a minute or two at most, I mean I've done this dozens of times, but I somehow found myself standing in front of a very unhappy and surly young man. He looked at the form I handed him with my passport - name, age, home country, occupation, where and how long I'd be in the U.K. - and he started grilling me. His first question knocked me out and I started laughing. Not a good response to, "How can you travel like this if you're just a baker?" I thought he was kidding. His next question was delivered through gritted teeth, "What. Is. So. Funny?" Which made me laugh more. Oh my. I tried to keep it light while answering all his inquiries, but he was not happy. I didn't have definite plans and he wanted definite plans. At one point he told me that if I spent more than two months in the U.K., immigration WOULD find me and then something about knocking down a door and dragging me out...by this time I was more interested in the look on the face of the passport control guy sitting in the next booth watching the interaction with his mouth open. When he stamped my passport, I grabbed it quickly and hurried away. I laughed all the way to the parking lot. An older gentleman I passed addressed me, "Well, aren't you jolly!"
My friend Brian met me outside and off we went through the outskirts of Manchester to Sale, a suburb southwest of the city. His house is in an older neighborhood with big trees and within walking distance to everything you'd need. We walked the canal that afternoon to downtown Sale then headed back where Brian made dinner and then I turned in early. I was in Sale for five days and everyday we walked. We'd drive out into the countryside and take off on trails that Brian was familiar with having lived here most all his life. The plants, trees and flowers were magnificent and we walked through more fields of sheep than I've seen in my lifetime. Many herds were held in their pastures by hawthorn hedgerows, such a natural and efficient way to pen small livestock. We climbed countless stiles to cross fences, went through "kissing gates" instead of opening full sized gates and traversed a countryside so ancient and storied, I could feel it to my bones. We ate fish and chips and I was introduced to Mushy Peas (yes, they're really called that), the traditional accompaniment to the meal. I met Brian's sister and we went to a neighboring town to see a working steam engine and to have coffee. Brian had a slumber party one night and all five of us enjoyed terrific Chinese take out in the back garden and then huddled around the outdoor fireplace drinking wine until the cold forced us inside. Being the lightweight I am, I was the first one to retire. The next morning a big breakfast was served in the garden again and then another walk through the countryside to a pub for a drink before walking back to the car. I became fond of a drink called a Shandy - beer and lemonade. My last full day there was what the English call a "bank holiday" and what we call Memorial Day. We drove to a huge lake and walked to a small cafe on the far side to meet friends of Brian's he'd known since he was a teenager, Mo and Fred. It was a great visit and Brian was a wonderful host. More than anything, I enjoyed the countryside - impossibly narrow lanes and small villages with funny names like Pott Shrigley. Northwestern England is the most whimsically poetic place I've ever been! Brian had suggested I visit Chester, on the border with Wales and so I took a train to this historic walled city and checked into a private room in a hostel for three nights close to the old part of town. I like the option of a non dorm room in a hostel as you have your privacy, but still have the use of a kitchen and get to meet other guests. Chester was lovely and quiet and a great place to decide my next move. I made reservations in Llandudno, on the northwest coast of Wales and within an hour received a message from Bev, the English woman I'd met in Evora, Portugal with a request to get together. She had friends in Cotswold, England where we could meet for the weekend. I changed my reservation and the next day hopped on a train to Banbury, where I met Bev at the train station as she had just arrived from Oxford. We spent a wonderful weekend at the beautuful home of Mandy and Keith in Hook Norton. Our first afternoon, Bev and I walked to the brewery in Hook Norton, took the hour tour, tasted many glasses of their wares, walked back to the house and promptly fell asleep on the grass in the backyard! That night Mandy made a tasty baked chicken with vegetables and a big salad, but the magic of that meal for me was dessert. Their backyard garden held the largest rhubarb plant I've ever seen and Mandy had made a rhubarb crumble, with a simple shortbread crumb topping and lightly sweetened fruit (rhubarb is actually a vegetable), it was the best dessert I'd eaten in a long time. The next day Mandy and Keith had a family commitment in Oxford, so they dropped us in Woodstock to play tourist. We walked the back way into Blenheim Park where, as we walked the grounds, we watched Lycra clad runners passing us. We figured, incorrectly it was a marathon. We soon found out the park was the site of a Triathlon that weekend! Blenheim Park is home to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill and one of the largest homes in England. We walked through the park being guided by docents through areas of the triathlon and then into the village of Woodstock where we ate lunch and window shopped, ending up in a great bookstore. We took a bus to Chipping Norton and wandered until Mandy and Keith picked us up for the ride home. The next day was a small birthday lunch for Mandy's sister and we had a feast in the garden before I coerced a guest to give me a ride to the train station to catch my late afternoon train back to Chester. What a restful weekend it had been! Great music and food and new friends! Back in Chester for one night then the next morning to the train station for the hour long train ride along the coast to Llandudno, Wales. My hostel in Llandudno was a block from the train station but I walked all over town looking for it. It was a pleasant walk though I was glad when I found the hostel and could unload my backpack. The hostel was an elegant old house with thick carpets, chandeliers and fancy cotton sheets. Not the usual hostel! I spent three nights there and my days were consumed with walking through town, sitting on the beach and hiking the Great Orme. When I started hiking up the massive peninsula of limestone that is the Great Orme it was clear and sunny and the cable car that creaked overhead was full of chattering and waving passengers. At one point, halfway up the mountain, I stopped on a bench to watch the sheep grazing nearby. I was a bit worried when I watched thick white smoke pour over the mountain into the valley below me. As it passed me I felt a chill and realized it was fog, not smoke, and within minutes the valley was completely obscured as were the cable cars above. I could still hear the creaking of the cars moving but could barely make out where they were.
I finished my hike to the top all the while in a thick, damp fog. At the summit, the promised views were shrouded in a white blanket. I took a different route down the mountain and it was magical to be walking that mountain as in a mist from another time. When I got back to town everyone was talking about the fog that had descended - I sat on a bench by the old church and watched the fog continue to roll through town. Apparently it was an anomaly and I was pleased I got to experience it, especially while on the Great Orme.
From Llandudno, I took a train to Holyhead on the island of Anglesey where I caught a three hour ferry to Dublin. Once at the Dublin port, I boarded a bus to Ha'penny Bridge just a block from my hostel. No passport control, no security, just off the ferry and onto the bus. This surprised me as Ireland is not in the U.K. (Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.), but it is part of the European Union. My hostel in Dublin was a beehive, a young and active hostel. Not my favorite kind, but my small three bunk room was comfortable with two nice roommates. They moved me the next night to an eight bed room, and after a day walking around Dublin (which included a visit to the Guinness Brewery and getting caught in a big rainstorm), I was grateful to find no one else in the room. I was able to dry my clothes and catch up on mail and the news. As I was just about ready to go to bed, a young woman walked in. We started talking and I could tell she was American. She was from San Antonio on a month long work study trip from UTSA. She was heading to London the next day, but had stopped in Dublin because she'd never been. We marvelled at the serendipity of our meeting. My train the next morning to Wexford on the southeastern coast of Ireland was a slow, sleepy ride. I was looking forward to quiet before a whirlwind two weeks with my friend Kathleen coming over from Texas. I'd booked a B&B in Wexford and it was more upscale than I'd been used to. The hostess, Grainne, (pronounced Gron-ya) reminded me so much of a younger Mrs. Doubtfire, from the Robin Williams movie of the same name. Her full Irish breakfasts are legendary and I've never had so much food for breakfast - and on fine China and silver coffee service, too! I could live on her breakfast porridge with cream and I miss that more than anything. My first night in Wexford, Kathleen texted me that she had ended up in the hospital and was having to cancel her trip. I was sad and concerned. We've kept in touch and she seems much better, but I miss her presence all the same. With two weeks to fill, I turned to the WWOOFing (WWOOF=World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) site and after one night in Dublin, I'll head west to WWOOF for a week or two on the tiny island of Inishturk. Three miles long and one mile wide with a population of about fifty people, I'll be helping out on a small sheep farm. I'm looking forward to the one on one with the owner, Mary. After my time there, I may head back to the mainland to help with an organic garden behind a seafood restaurant on the coast or gardens at a holistic retreat center near the Cliffs of Moher. The WWOOFing opportunities are many and I'll be working my last two months in Ireland. I'm heading back to the States in mid August, but will be on the East Coast for a number of weeks before I head to Texas. Knowing I am so close to the end of this trip is bittersweet. I miss my family terribly, but yet it's hard to imagine being settled back at home. I'm enjoying being a nomad with all its uncertainty, it will be strange to have routine again! Yet it's one of the things I miss the most - hanging clothes on the clothesline, taking a walk with my dog, time with my grandkids. The little routine things I hope I never take for granted again. But for now there's a train to catch and an island to discover and more adventures awaiting. I'll leave you with this quote: "We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us." ~Anonymous